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Spanish PM vows accountability over Catalan spying allegations

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez vowed Wednesday to "be accountable" for allegations that Madrid spied on dozens of Catalan separatist figures using controversial spyware.

Spanish PM vows accountability over Catalan spying allegations
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez vowed Wednesday to "be accountable" for allegations that Madrid spied on dozens of Catalan separatist figures using controversial spyware. (Photo by Javier BARBANCHO / POOL / AFP)

The allegations have strained relations between Sanchez’s leftist minority coalition government and the Catalan separatist party ERC, whose support he needs to pass legislation.

Canada’s Citizen Lab group said last week that more than 60 people linked to the Catalan separatist movement had been targets of Pegasus spyware after a failed independence bid in 2017.

Elected officials, including current and former Catalan regional leaders, were among those targeted by the spyware made by Israel’s NSO group, which infiltrates mobile phones to extract data or activate a camera or microphone and spy on its owners.

“We will be accountable,” Sánchez said during a parliamentary debate, his first public comments on the spying allegations.

“This is a serious issue which demands serious answers,” he added.

The government said Sunday it would launch inquiries into the affair.

It has neither confirmed nor denied whether it uses Pegasus or similar spyware, saying only that any surveillance was carried out under the supervision of judges.

Sanchez vowed “maximum transparency”, saying documents could be declassified to help the investigations.

At the same time, he defended Spain’s intelligence service, the CNI, saying everything it had done had been carried out “scrupulously and with rigour, within the framework of the law”.

Citizen Lab, which operates out of the University of Toronto, focuses on high-tech human rights abuses.

In its analysis it said it could not directly attribute the spying operations to the government, but that circumstantial evidence pointed to Spanish authorities.

Those targeted included “members of the European Parliament, Catalan Presidents, legislators, jurists, and members of civil society organisations”, it said.

Catalan separatists have pointed the finger at Spain’s intelligence service.

Top-selling Spanish daily El Pais reported Tuesday that the service had court approval to spy on Catalan separatist figures, and that the spying targeted far fewer people than alleged by Citizen Lab.

Catalonia, in northeast Spain, has been for several years at the centre of a political crisis between separatists, who control the executive and the regional parliament, and the central government in Madrid.

Tensions had eased since dialogue began between Sánchez’s government and the regional authorities in 2020 and the granting of pardons to nine pro-independence leaders last year.

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POLITICS

Why Madrid has become a haven for Latin American dissidents

Well-known faces of Cuba's protest have in recent years gone into exile in Madrid, which is rivalling Miami as a haven for Latin American political opponents.

Why Madrid has become a haven for Latin American dissidents

“Miami has always been the destination of those who suffered from Latin American dictatorships,” Cuban dissident and playwright Yunior García, who went into self-imposed exile in Madrid in November, told AFP.

But now “many Latin Americans are choosing to come to Spain,” added García, one of the organisers of a failed mass protest last year in the Communist-ruled island.

The Spanish capital is especially attractive for an artist and dissident fleeing a dictatorship because of its “bohemian” atmosphere, García said.

Spain has long drawn migrants from its former colonies in Latin America who have often sought work in low-wage jobs as cleaners or waiters — but in recent years prominent exiles have joined the influx.

Award-winning Nicaraguan writer and former vice president Sergio Ramírez and Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo López, a former mayor of Chacao, an upmarket district of Caracas, are among those who have moved to Madrid.

“Madrid is the new Miami, the new place where so many hispanics come fleeing dictatorship,” said Toni Cantó, the head of a Madrid regional government body charged with promoting the region as the “European capital of Spanish”.

Many Latin Americans are able to establish themselves easily in Spain because they have double citizenship, in many cases because their ancestors came from the country.

Others like García arrive on a tourist visa and then request asylum.

Sometimes, especially in the case of prominent Venezuelan opposition leaders, the government has rolled out the welcome mat and granted them Spanish citizenship.

Cuban political dissident Carolina Barrero is pictured during an AFP interview in Madrid. Spain has long drawn migrants from its former colonies in Latin America who have often sought work in low-wage jobs, but in recent years prominent exilees have joined the influx. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

‘Good option’

Contacted by AFP, Spain’s central government declined to comment.

But shortly after García arrived in Spain, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares told parliament that Latin Americans “share our values, they look naturally to Europe”.

For Cubans, getting a visa to enter the United States has been even more complicated in recent years since Washington closed its consulate in Havana in 2017. It only partially reopened in May.

“Spain is a very good option,” said Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez, who fled to Spain in January when he finally was able to obtain a passport after years of being denied one.

Spain has received previous waves of Cuban dissidents in the past.

Under an agreement between Cuba, Spain and the Catholic Church, in 2010 and 2011, more than 110 Cuban political prisoners arrived in Madrid, accompanied by dozens of relatives.

There are now about 62,000 Cubans officially registered in Spain, with Madrid home to the largest community.

Cuba is “a pressure cooker, and ever time pressure builds” Havana eases it by forcing dissidents into exile, said Alejandro Gonzalez Raga, the head of the Madrid-based Cuban Observatory for Human Rights who fled to Spain in 2008.

Cuban journalist Mónica Baró is pictured at her home in Madrid. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

‘Lost everything’

Cuban independent journalist Mónica Baró said she left Cuba for Madrid in 2021 because she said she could no longer bear the “harassment” of Cuban state security forces.

Madrid shares the same language and has a “shared culture”, as well as a well-established network of Cubans, that has helped her overcome the “traumas” she brought with her, Baro added.

But not knowing if she will ever see her parents, who remained in Cuba, again saddens her.

“When you leave like I did, you have the feeling that you buried your parents,” said Baró, who faces arrest if she returns to Cuba.

García said he welcomed the absence in Madrid of the deep “resentment” and “rage” towards the Cuban regime found in Miami among its much larger community of Cuban exiles, which he said was “natural”.

These are people “who had to leave on a raft, who lost everything they had in Cuba, whose family suffered jail time and sometimes death,” he said.

Madrid on the other hand, provides “tranquility to think things through,” he added.

“I don’t want anger, resentment, to win me over,” García said.

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